Within an 18-day period last month, the people of El Paso County sent a strong rebuke to Fourth Judicial District Attorney Dan May, with three juries acquitting individuals connected to the medical-marijuana industry.
Elisa Kappelmann, 53-year-old co-owner of Southern Colorado Medical Marijuana, had been charged with marijuana cultivation and possession as a result of the so-called Beacon Street raids of May 2010. On June 11 of this year, a jury of her peers found her not guilty.
Jesse Vriese, 30, was an employee at now-defunct Green Love Wellness when a 2011 inspection determined the center's owner was growing far more than the patient-count could support. Everybody associated with the dispensary was charged, and almost all took plea agreements, Vriese says — but not him. The June 20 verdict? Not guilty.
Finally, on June 29, three weeks after his 64th birthday, Robert Clyde Crouse, a leukemia sufferer, was declared not guilty on charges of marijuana cultivation and possession with intent to distribute.
"I think we've had enough, I really do," says Kappelmann in an interview with the Indy. "I think people are getting to the point where they're gonna stand up. And I know [May's] got political ambitions, but this is not the way to get there."
Though the district attorney's office declined to comment on specific cases, spokeswoman Lee Richards did offer this via e-mail: "The responsibility of our office is to enforce Colorado's laws and we have to abide by laws set forth by the legislature."
Regardless, the office is doing so irresponsibly, says longtime local defense attorney Sarah Christensen.
"My strongest thought is that I think it's a tremendous waste of money and resources to prosecute this," she says. "And I also think that there are very talented law-enforcement resources that are being diverted from that area and wasted, really, in sort of this pointless pursuit of ferreting out criminal cases, when we have plenty that are calling out for attention — real cases, you know what I mean?"
Though he's careful to say he's not criticizing a fellow elected colleague, Boulder County District Attorney Stan Garnett suggests May's priorities could be different.
"Every prosecutor around makes those kind of judgment calls," Garnett says, "but I will tell you: The people of Boulder County, and I imagine El Paso County is the same, they don't want us wasting their time with jury trials that they think are not important."
And he definitely has noticed a lack of enthusiasm for MMJ cases.
"One of the great things about the jury system is it's fundamentally a democratic system, and it gives the community the chance to step in and give its opinion about law enforcement," says Garnett.
"And we take a lot of cases to trial up here; and we get good verdicts on the white-collar cases, and the violent-crime cases, and the serious drug cases that we try.
"But it's clear to me — both from a couple of cases we've pursued, plus we had one where we couldn't even get a jury of people that would say they would convict if we proved the facts ... It's just clear that people in my community do not see enforcement of criminal laws ... that involve the medical marijuana community to be a priority."
Winning and losing
May's office has suffered a few other high-profile setbacks lately. In April, a jury acquitted former police officer Joshua Carrier of the most serious charges in his child sex assault trial. That same month, a jury found local developer Ray Marshall not guilty on 17 counts of securities fraud, theft and conspiracy. Then, in July, remaining charges against Marshall were dismissed.
"Well, you know, I'm batting pretty good myself; I think most of the defense lawyers are batting pretty damn good," says Christensen. "I don't know that the public-defender stats are any different than the private-lawyer stats. I think it shows that they're selecting their cases poorly, and using bad judgment."
Numbers provided by the district attorney's office show it's won 106 of the last 135 trials that have come down to a jury's verdict. Of course, "winning" can mean different things to different people. Defense attorneys say they've won if the outcome is better than the initial plea offer; prosecutors usually say they've won if they get any type of conviction.
In any case, Christensen, citing a problem we covered last year ("Take it or leave it," News, Oct. 20), says defense attorneys are still not being presented with viable plea offers. Vriese was offered a plea of guilty and four years in prison.
"And," Vriese says, "it did feel like, even though we were bringing them a plethora of evidence about how I was obviously not in charge over there, they would not accept it.
"You know, [alcohol] Prohibition was ended when people, in juries, would no longer convict people for drinking alcohol. And I really do feel like that's what's gonna happen in Colorado."